Back when I was trying to be an academic -- and I was a seriously terrible academic -- one of the things I found most appealing was the idea that you could like, come up with a question, and then toddle off to find the answer to that question, even if it took you six months to do so. And people would PAY you for this. Because it was your JOB.
It is not, to be fair, all that different from my job now, except today I don’t get a couple of semesters to think hard about my question, and I don’t have a TA to say all my dumb smart stuff to (although I do have the amazing Olivia, whom I think of sometimes as my TA in the classroom that is LIFE).
One of the best parts of the whole deal was that the question you asked could be TOTALLY OBVIOUS, something that everybody just kind of knows but which has not been conclusively proven by study. Like how three researchers from England’s Durham University recently asked whether our perceived preference for slender bodies was a result of the influence of what they call our “visual diet,” which for most of us living in the everyday world, is comprised of images of unusually slender bodies.
The visual-diet theory suggests that preferences can be shaped by the level of visual exposure. In other words, the more images a woman sees of thin women, the more she will internalize the idea that their bodies are the normal ones and larger bodies are abnormal.
Associative learning occurs when individuals perceive a connection between a certain body size and positive traits. Thus, the more thinness is linked to health, wealth and prestige, the more women will feel that thin equals good.
"If thin is constantly equated with success and popularity on TV and in magazines, it is not surprising that there is a strong pressure to shift the ideal body towards a lower weight," [study researcher Martin Tovée] told The Huffington Post in an email.
All of this seems painfully apparent to me, as it’s something I’ve personally experienced. When MODE magazine, the short-lived plus-sized answer to Vogue, first arrived in the late 90s, I pounced on it and became immediately obsessed. This regular exposure to images of women who were not uniformly slender in such a glossy publication had a profound effect not only on my academic work but also on my self-esteem. When you spend a long time always feeling like an outsider, there’s a deep validation that comes with seeing people and ideas you can relate to portrayed positively in a mainstream form.
The context was just as important; MODE made their models human, not simply display racks for clothing, and even included their models’ own feelings on self-esteem and size in the editorial content. More than that, MODE maintained a strict policy against publishing “diet tips” -- or any content that wasn’t pretty damn positive about all sorts of bodies.
MODE folded in 2001, but over the next decade, I would run into this visibility-based revolution again and again, now seeing it unfold in other people. For a while it was happening on Livejournal and Flickr; these days I suspect it’s mostly a Tumblr and Pinterest thing, unless there’s some new social thingy the kids are using that I don’t know about yet.
In the course of a few years, I myself published literally hundreds of my own “Outfit of the Day” pictures online, not so much out of the commonly presumed narcissism (although that was at least PARTLY the case) but because I kept hearing from people that seeing pictures of my 300-pound self attired in dresses and colored tights and other stuff that fat girls are not supposed to wear had caused them to reconsider all the crap “rules” they’d spent so much of their lives trying to follow -- that my confidence and willingness to be seen was contagious, and that they had started to wonder if maybe they DIDN’T need to put off doing the things they wanted to do until they were thinner.
The importance of that lesson -- to not put things off until you have achieved a certain appearance-based goal -- cannot be overstated, no matter what size you are. Live your life now. As the expression goes, nobody ever lies on their deathbed bemoaning, “WOE IS ME, I wish I had spent MORE time DIETING and hating myself.”
So yeah. This study falls under the category of Things We Totally Already Knew, so far as I’m concerned. But not everyone is so comfortable with the idea that their preferences are being manipulated. So to test the visual diet concept, our friendly researchers rounded up 69 women and showed one group images of larger women, and the other images of more slender women, and then gauged their preferences afterward, finding that the participants who saw larger women showed a strong preference for larger bodies, and those who saw thinner women preferred thin bodies. Quelle surprise, right?
In the associative learning portion of the study:
[R]esearchers showed a different group of 69 women sets of images sorted into aspirational and non-aspirational categories. Participants who looked at pictures of smiling, well-dressed plus-size beauty queens and models intermixed with underweight eating-disorder patients wearing gray leotards showed significantly less preference for thin bodies, whereas those shown images of thin beauty queens and overweight eating-disorder patients showed a stronger preference for thin bodies.
Why 69 women, exactly, for both studies? No idea. It’s either a science thing or these researchers have a weird sense of humor.
The study authors are quick to note that these results do not necessarily prove any long-term effects of a different visual diet, but my personal anecdata says otherwise. Whereas once upon a time, flipping through a skinnified magazine like Vogue or Elle would have ordinarily left me with a short-term feeling that I was a hideous blob of despair, when balanced with a variety of other images from other sources -- plus size fashion blogs, pictures of friends and other everyday people, pictures of myself, for that matter -- I have come back to a place where I can read these magazines and have my self-esteem be unaffected by them.
Because slender bodies are not themselves a problem. There’s nothing wrong with a slender body. The damage done to our own self-perception happens not because slender bodies exist, or even because we see them, but because very often they are ALL that we see, and they are so uniformly culturally associated with praise, positive attention, and privileges that less-slender (or just less conventionally attractive) bodies are denied.
So who’s surprised that so many women want nothing more than to be thinner, when thinness is what we value and elevate in such dramatic and memorable ways as to suggest that women with other sorts of bodies are not even worth representing in media, except as the butts of jokes?
It seems that even science, in this case, agrees with me: seeing a diversity of bodies, representing all shapes, sizes, shades, abilities and backgrounds -- you know, like the people we see in actual real life -- is what is best for our heads. While appreciating a skinny, conventionally attractive lady’s body is totally fine, let’s just try to make sure that’s not the only body we can appreciate.